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Chipotle’s Ells Samples Paper Bag Mac N Cheese on Reality TV

Chipotle's Steve Ells
Founder of Chipotle Steve Ells speaks during the 'America's Next Great Restaurant' panel. Photographer: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Move over Donald Trump. Steve Ells, the founder of Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc., is about to get his own 15 minutes of television fame.

On March 6, Ells will debut as a judge on “America’s Next Great Restaurant,” an NBC reality show in which 21 contestants pitch ideas for a new restaurant chain. The winner gets money to open an eatery as well as mentoring from the four judges, who besides Ells, include Bobby Flay, celebrity chef and burger chain entrepreneur.

After discussing the concept with the producers, Ells, 45, decided the show was a “story I can very much relate to” and agreed to participate, he said in an e-mail.

“There were a lot of skeptics telling me all the reasons Chipotle wouldn’t work,” Ells said. “I thought the show might be a good way to help someone realize their own dream.”

The classically trained chef, who opened the first Chipotle in 1993, has immersed himself in the details of his business, fiddling with recipes and baking tortillas himself.

As co-chief executive, Ells oversees a chain with more than 1,000 stores in the U.S. Revenue increased 21 percent to $1.84 billion last year, the fastest growth rate among the Denver-based company’s peers, while the stock more than doubled.

Along with his humble, relatable origins, Ells’ humor and frankness made him ideal for reality TV, said Jane Lipsitz, one of the show’s executive producers.

The Chipotle CEO doesn’t pull his punches. During the first episode he likens the texture of one contestant’s macaroni and cheese to the paper bag it was served in.

‘Very Witty’

“He says what’s on his mind and is very witty -- those were pleasant surprises besides his business acumen,” said Lipsitz.

The judges also include two chefs, Curtis Stone and Lorena Garcia, whose cooking show on Univision features recipes made with Nestle SA’s Latin American brands. All four formed a joint venture with equal investments to finance the winner, Lipsitz said. She declined to say how much money they put up.

At times things got tense on the set, according to Flay, who said decisions sometimes came down to a vote. “When you have money at stake, you fight for your opinion,” he said in a telephone interview.

Ells “can’t be swayed,” Flay said. “He’s got some very heartfelt opinions about what’s right and what’s wrong in the restaurant business.”

Fickle Consumers

The victor is scheduled to open stores on May 1 in Los Angeles, Minneapolis and New York, after the show’s finale.

While confidence among American consumers is on the rise, restaurateurs confront surging food costs, fickle customers and a competitive landscape. Fast casual dining, however, may be the bright spot. Last year, traffic rose 5.8 percent, while total restaurant volume slumped 0.7 percent, according to data from the research firm NPD Group Inc.

You can’t be just “another pancake house or another burrito place,” said Warren Solochek, an NPD vice president based in Chicago. “You have to stand out from the crowd.”

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